Osama Bin Laden inspired the attacks that brought to us to the Middle East. To understand something you have to get into the mindset of the group that carries out such violent acts and their ideology and their theological arguments that justify mass murder of innocent men, women and children. Al Qaeda is notorious for its lack of Islamic scholarship in justifying mass murder.
Bin Laden the Man
For many Americans the face of Islamic terror is personified by Osama Bin Laden. Bin Laden loved to show the world he was the image of the modern Spartan warrior. In one of his most famous videotapes, he chose gray rocks for a backdrop, a camo jacket for a costume and a rifle for a prop.
To the frustrated Islamic world he portrayed a hard, pure alternative to the decadent west that had corrupted the holy lands of Islam with puppet princes who lived lavish lifestyles while he desired nothing but a gun and a prayer rug to carry out his meaning. His message of hate was clear: the zealot travels light, his thoughts made pure by his love of Allah that even stones are as soft as cushions for his untroubled sleep.
After his death we would find out that Bin Laden was not the stoic soldier that he played onscreen. The exiled son of a Saudi billionaire was living in a million-dollar home in a wealthy home nestled among the green hills in Pakistan when he was killed.
He slept in a king-sized bed with a much younger wife and watched satellite TV. In a final sense of irony, some of his favorite TV shows were situational comedies from the United States that depicted the very way of life he always talked about hating.
No matter how many times he spoke nostalgically about the 12th century and the glory of the Islamic caliphate, Bin Laden was a master of the 21st century image machine (Wright 2006). He understood the power of the underdog against a superpower. Bin Laden had learned this image judo as a “mujahid”- holy warrior, fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and he perfected it in his personal war in the U.S.
In 1996 he laid down the challenge against the U.S., declaring war on the world’s remaining superpower- an audacious act of a twisted imagination right out of the mind of a James Bond super villain.
No Hollywood filmmaker could have staged a more terrifying spectacle than 9/11, which Bin Laden and his followers made come true with a few box cutters and nineteen misguided martyrs. But again, the questions arise- Why would anyone want to do this? What drives such hate? To answer those questions we must start at the beginning.
The Soviet- Afghan War
In 1979 the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan would change the life of many followers of Islam (Tanner 2002). For Bin Laden it was a call to destiny. Over the 9 years of the conflict he would launch an ambitious plan to confront the Soviets with a small group of Arab fighters under his command.
That group of Arabs would later provide the nucleus of al-Qaeda, founded in 1988. The purpose of al-Qaeda was to take jihad globally. As the Soviet War was ending, Bin Laden had assembled a force of fighters, many of whom had been trained by experts, and hardened in combat against a modern army.
Two other events Americans rarely connect what happened that would give even more credence to al-Qaeda: Russia’s retreat from Afghanistan in 1989, followed in 1990 by Western troops pouring into the holy lands of Saudi Arabia after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait (McDermott 2005).
The mujahedeen victory in Afghanistan electrified Islamic warriors who hated Christianity as much as communism; a new “infidel” army in the form of the immoral and godless West to fight proved an irresistible challenge (Wright 2006).
The key to understanding this vision and of all Bin Laden’s actions was his utter conviction that he was an instrument of God’s will. He was a religious fanatic who was convinced the mujahedeen victory of the godless Soviets was a reward for the faith of the true believer.
The zealotry of Bin Laden revealed itself as a teenager. He prayed seven times a day (two more than the mandated by Islamic convention) and fasted twice a week in imitation of the Prophet Mohammad. For entertainment, a young Bin Laden would assemble a group of friends at his house to chant songs about the liberation of Palestine (Bergen 2006).
Bin Laden was driven not only by a desire to apply what he saw as God’s will but also by a fear of divine punishment if he failed to do so. So not defending Islam against the decadent west, represented by America, would be disobeying God, something he would never do (Bergen 2006).
Not hard to conceive when you consider that a group of hard scrabble farmers (Afghans) armed with antique rifles defeated one of the world’s most powerful armies (Soviets) with their faith and a little help from their friends -read: the same Westerners they later claimed to hate.
The Call to Jihad
But what explanation is there that moves seemingly normal men to undertake monstrous acts of violence? Most of the terrorists responsible for unspeakable acts of mass murder remain shadowy figures. To understand their motives we must understand their lives and personalities and examine their beliefs (Wright 2006).
If we can illustrate just who these people are and why they do what they do, we can begin to understand the context of their beliefs. It provides a chilling implication of how all of our lives were changed in one of the most prolific acts of violence in modern history on 9/11.
The following is a sweeping list of why the Jihadists feel the call to battle is mandatory for all “True Muslims” (McDermott 2005):
To keep the “infidels” from dominating the world- To justify this broad motive most of the leaders of Islamic Jihad quote an infamous passage from the Koran that orders Muslims to fight until all “fitna” has ceased. Jihadists translate fitna as “disbelief,” although it can be defined as “internal conflict among Muslims.”
Because Allah wants you to- Armed with what is called “The Sword Verses” of the Koran these passages speak of more an internal and spiritual struggle than a specific provocation by the “infidels.” Jihadists use several different variations on this theme, including fear of hell, desire of heaven (via martyrdom) and their favorite fallback line- following the example of the Prophet and his companions in the battle for Mecca.
The gathering of holy warriors to fight- The global Muslim community, known as the “Ummah” is lacking in capable of fighters who are committed to the “true calling” of Islam (Fury 2008). To show your allegiance to true Islam you need to fight and be prepared to die for the glory of being a martyr.
An interesting side note is that most young men who commit acts of terror are not even proficient in the recitation of the Koran in Arabic and cannot understand the language the holy book is written. Most of them are illiterate and know only what they were taught by their Islamic teachers. The teachers and leaders never seem to be willing to risk their own lives in this foolish effort to glory.
Protecting the Ummah- This extended to protecting the “dignity” of Muslims around the world and protecting the Muslim resources and houses of worship. This message was important to Bin Laden’s appeal; its importance was most significant when Coalition Soldiers arrived on the holy lands of Saudi Arabia in the 1990 Gulf War (Bergen 2006).
Bin Laden saw this as the ultimate affront to the “dignity” of Islam. Bin Laden’s family had made its fortune as the lead contractor renovating the holy sites of Mecca and Medina. As a young man he had direct connection to these places in his early 20’s working in the family business and spending years in the most revered sites of Islam (Bergen 2006).
As seen with all these rationales, the call to jihad is to a large extent self-justifying. Once drawn in by an arguably legitimate defensive need, the most world’s most influential Jihadist called for fighting for a more obscure reason: Establishing a base for Islam.
Bin Laden expounded on this idea in 1988 and at first called his new organization for global jihad “The Solid Base.” The use of the word “base” is highly significant and would later be shortened to the Arabic word for “the base”- al-Qaeda.
According to Bin Laden the Muslim community must wage jihad from an “area of land.” The base would be like a small spark which would ignite a large keg of explosives, for the Islamic revolution brings about an eruption of the hidden capabilities of the “Ummah.” His 1996 and 1998 “fatwas” or declarations of war against America were examples of this philosophy.
The Base or Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan
Bin Laden thought his blow that bloodied the nose of America on 9/11 would stun his enemy and that his rag-tag band of Jihadists could stand against the most powerful nation on earth. The opposite happened (Fury 2008).
Al-Qaeda lost the best base it had ever had: Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Shrewd members of Bin Laden’s inner circle warned him before 9/11 that antagonizing the U.S. would prove fatal. In a final act of hubris Bin Laden thought his beliefs and God would allow him to defeat America as it had the Soviets. The exact opposite happened. The attacks on 9/11 set in motion events that would end Bin Laden, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
With the killing of Bin Laden flashed across the world a message: a smart, wise, and supremely competent U.S. will stick with an unpopular goal year after frustrating year as it did in defeating al-Qaeda. America gained the world’s respect and fear, if not affection.
Bergen, Peter. The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al Qaeda’s Leader . New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006.
Fury, Dalton. Kill Bin Laden: A Delta Force Commander’s Account of the Hunt for the World’s Most Wanted Man. New York City: Saint Martin’s Press, 2008.
Maurer, Keven, and Rusty Bradley. Lions of Kandahar: The Story of a Fight Against All Odds. New York: Bantam, 2011.
Tanner, Stephen. Afghanistan: A Military History from Alexander the Great to the War against the Taliban . Philidelphia, PA: Da Capo Press, 2002.
Wright, Lawrence. The Looming Twoer; Al Qaeda and the road to 9/11. New York : Random House, 2006.